Wednesday, June 25th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain. In honor of this, Deadshirt presents an entire week of art and essays that explore and celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Dig, if you will.
There’s a stigma against editing your own Wikipedia article. It’s pretty obvious why it’s considered gauche, since anybody worth a carefully curated entry probably has People to take care of it for them. Insisting on personally manicuring your history almost seems petty to manipulate, certainly below the status of rock stars. However, rejecting self-mythologizing as inauthentic and ostentatious not only makes you a corny faux-punk, but ignores the fact that everybody cool writes their own history before it even happens. It’s the secret to fame that all the greats have used: you choose who you’re going to be, and then you become it. Prince’s evasive interview style and stranglehold on footage of himself are designed to maintain his air of mystique. He’s the closest thing we have to a supervillain, with his remote compound and the vault of secrets, and hell he even has a weapon shaped like his signature symbol. Like any good supervillain he took a crack at his own origin story with the second-to-last track on Purple Rain, “Baby I’m a Star.”
As an aspiring rock star and delusional pseudobaroque dance party evangelist, “Baby I’m a Star” has always been one of my favorite tracks on Purple Rain. The drums thumping the heart of the track, mixed highest (except the Purple Yoda’s vocal, of course) and relentlessly driving on the twos and fours. Recorded live at First Avenue on the same night as “I Would Die 4 U” and “Purple Rain,” it’s one of the few times we’re really hearing Prince & the Revolution and not Prince playing and singing everything until he needs Wendy & Lisa to do backup vocals. Of course, their backup vocals are incredible. Doubling when necessary, hype-man stinging after boasts, delivering the hook in shimmery purple ribbons of triumph, Baby is a full-group victory. Lisa and Dr. Fink’s synths flit and crescendo in teasing bursts until Prince shoots out that pterodactyl-voiced “DOCTAH-“ like a signal flare and suddenly if you’ve never been thrown back into a fit of speaking tongues by a preacher you can feel it. “Let’s Go Crazy” starts parties, “Baby I’m A Star” ends them with the roof crashing down.
Oddly, it’s not a song about success or being at the top, but a cocksure mission statement. “Hey, look me over, tell me if you like what you see/hey, I ain’t got no money, but honey I’m rich on personality.” The posturing “catch-me-before-I’m-big” element runs the risk of falling flat because at the time he had a major label deal, was starring in a movie about himself, and had shared a stage with James Brown and Michael Jackson the year before so… Looking at it in that context puts him at about twenty DeciDrakes on the internationally-respected Aubrey Graham Struggle Veracity scale. However, “BIaS” isn’t about Prince as he was when it was recorded. It’s the story of the artist as he wants it to be known, a capsule from his time as a Minnesota nobody.
There’s precedent for this sort of song. Boston did one, The Clash did one, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint ends with one. The most notable cross-comparison comes from another early-career, shot-in-the-dark, nonstop-hit starmaker, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I promise you this isn’t a tenuous connection: both are very loose concept albums written by artists angling at androgynous god status with a few underselling gems under their belts, the best bands of their careers, a preoccupation with stardom, and a cover featuring the artist in a mysterious alley for no discernable reason. In an analogous position on Ziggy is “Star,” a piano-pumping paean to the freedom of identity one can exercise once you’ve achieved magazine-cover status. In the process of fake-overnight success where acting like a big deal led to actually being a big deal, Bowie would make claims and contradict himself on his inspirations, plans and personal life with the same enigmatic persona that Prince has made his trademark.
Prince was devoted enough to the idea of his “rising to the top of the Minneapolis scene” that the movie Purple Rain was a fictionalized version of the narrative that pitted him against labelmates Morris Day & the Time. Of course, Prince wrote and recorded everything but the vocals on The Time’s albums. As a matter of fact, Prince was the prolific mastermind behind most of the “Minneapolis Sound” bands like Mazarati, Vanity 6 (later Appollonia 6), and The Time. It takes some serious balls to fabricate an entire music scene just so you can look like you Started From The Bottom.
This problem dissolves when you apply a rule of songwriting documented in the teaching of eminent minds like Jim Jones and our own Dylan Roth. It’s a simple one: the audience thinks that they want to hear your story, but really they want to hear their own. “Baby I’m a Star” is the Prince creation myth, but he knows that 99% of people listening to this aren’t already rich. They’re young and hungry. I know I ragged on Drake before, but people don’t love “Started from the Bottom” because they know Drake raised himself with a single jeweled hand from a collapsed mineshaft or whatever. When you sing a song you become a part of it, and you get to be the center of the legend. You get to start from the bottom and the whole crew comes with you to the top. It’s the archvillain’s secret weapon, call it a Purple Ray, that brings out the Prince inside everyone who listens to it. You get to throw your hands up and call for Doctor Fink to pull the synth solo, and for a minute, baby, you’re a star.
Read more from 30 Purple Years, our tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain!